As the National Women’s Soccer League descends upon Herriman, Utah for this summer’s Challenge Cup, each of the eight participating teams come hungry for victory in the first team sporting competition returning during the COVID-19 pandemic. For the host Utah Royals FC, it’s a chance to make the next step in a new era for a club that narrowly missed the playoffs last season.
Newly hired Craig Harrington is the man in charge of making that happen.
“I’m excited to see the players play. We all are,” Harrington said. “Waking up on Saturday and seeing NWSL games on and going to two live games was just a fantastic experience. Now, I can’t wait for our players to get the chance to get out there and run around and show what they’re about.”
Hailing from Middlesex, England, Harrington carries with him one of the more unique journeys of any head coach in the NWSL – with each step clearly defining who he is today, both on and off the pitch.
Harrington enjoyed a youth career with Oxford United and Swindon Town, but realized that he wouldn’t be making the leap into playing professionally. One of his interests outside of the pitch led him to his next move, and a small break from the club side of the sport.
“I didn’t know where to go or what to do – and as a player, I went to movies a lot,” Harrington said. “Pretty simply, I loved cinema, I loved film, I loved the history around it. And I knew I had to get a degree. At that point, some Chelsea Academy guys were working at the University of Kent in Canterbury. They pointed that out to me, so I went to film school and played at the University alongside those guys.”
Harrington, who made it a point of emphasis to mention The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and Superman 2: The Richard Donner Cut as two of his favorite films of all time, found a different way of thinking in his time in Canterbury, and also re-discovered his love for the beautiful game.
“I spent a lot of time with people way above me intellectually, discussing how they saw things and nuances and different ideas,” Harrington said. “While at the University, I got coaching within the local community and I really enjoyed it, and had a passion for it. I found my love for the game again, found a love for the craft of coaching that put me on the path to where I am today.”
Harrington moved to the United States and enjoyed a successful stint at Newport Mesa Soccer Club before spending time with MLS’s Los Angeles Galaxy. There, he led his team to the 2011-12 USSDA SoCal Division Championship, as well as having twelve of his players earn call-ups to various United States youth national teams.
Then came a call that would not only chart a new course for the rest of his career, but
shape the very mentality he looks to instill in his club to this day.
His next stop?
Technical Director of the Turks and Caicos Football Association, where Harrington would not only lead the men’s national team in World Cup qualifying, but have an influence on the entire sport on the island. The Association’s lifeblood were volunteer, grassroots coaches – people whose love and selfless commitment that Harrington carries with him to this day.
“They were lawyers, surveyors, owned shops, and worked in the tourist industry,” Harrington said. “A lot of the players worked on building sites and in the service industry, and then would come and give their time. So, how could you not give back and go above and beyond every single day for those people? Just to go above and beyond, try to make sure you connect with them as people first, before the soccer player.”
Harrington left his role with the TCIFA in 2016, and another role in the United States came calling for him two years later with Rory Dames at the Chicago Red Stars. Invigorated with the thought of working with one of the league’s star-studded clubs, Harrington leaped at the chance to go to the Windy City.
His two seasons as Dames’ assistant marked two of the club’s best in its history, with the Red Stars earning their first NWSL Championship berth last season. Not only did he make “friends for life” with some of the Red Stars’ core players, but Harrington says that the two seasons alongside the man he considers a mentor and a friend have prepared him for his first head coaching role in the league.
“What I learned from him is how to communicate and deal with players that are all at different stages in their career,” Harrington said. “How you look at the draft, develop players in the WPSL, dealing with players coming and going, and how you stage the season and keep the big picture. It’s just ultimately having the short side of the game, but having the long-term plan of where you want to get, what that looks like, and what it takes to get it done.”
Harrington’s journey now lands him in the Beehive State, tasked with launching the club into its next chapter – one focused on development and building out the youth system of the side entering its third year. One of Harrington’s main focuses lies in the mentality, culture, and atmosphere of the Utah Royals FC.
“I want our players to enjoy coming here everyday,” Harrington said. “I want them to feel that we as a coaching staff are fully invested in them, so they can fully invest themselves in the success of the club. I want to get the best out of our players, play to their strengths. I’m interested in if we can add to their game and help them on their journey.
“It’s also about me managing up. The players have a lot of power. They’re very, very important. When we talk about the business sometimes we lead with the CEO’s, the owners, and sometimes we forget about the most important people, and that’s the players. I want both the players and my staff to understand that.”
Unfortunately, much of his time since his hiring in February has been done remotely. Harrington says he and his staff changed much of the team’s preparation to focus on their physical conditioning, ensuring that whenever the club was ready to take the training pitch, fitness would be no issue.
Coaching a club remotely requires help, naturally. Harrington credits his “incredible” staff for their efforts during the lockdown – from staff already living in Utah to Louis Lancaster, Harrington’s assistant who was stuck in his native England for much of the lockdown.
While he and his staff have worked tirelessly to prepare their players, there are still many roadblocks in this “new normal” in the United States.
“I think just even having relationships with players is a real challenge that we’re still learning and navigating ourselves,” Harrington said. “It’s not normal. Wearing a mask and coaching is difficult. But they’ve been magnificent.The staff have been unbelievable. Every single one of them has a skillset that adds value to our team and our players.”
“The biggest disappointment – if I were to call it that – is that they aren’t going to get the chance to showcase and do it for a full season,” Harrington continued. “We will get that in the future, which is exciting to look forward to. But, I think the way they’ve all bonded and worked together in this situation just speaks volumes to them as people.”
Now training together as a team, Harrington can focus on fully implementing his style of play in Utah. Since he was hired, Harrington has long preached that the club will play a vibrant, energetic, and attacking style of play – one fans will look forward to watching each week. While his first game in charge delivered that and then some in a 3-3 draw with Houston, Harrington must build the attack without USWNT star Christen Press this summer.
In her absence, Harrington is confident in his club’s captain and new attacking options to step up.
“A-Rod’s our captain, she’s one of the first people on the team sheet and a proven goalscorer at this level,” he said. “She’s also got a fire in her eyes – she’s hungry, she’s leading this club now. I think she’s embraced that responsibility. She looked sharp in training. Then there’s a battle for the other spots, between King, Shipp, and Ratcliffe. They’re all getting opportunities in this tournament.”
While the obvious goal of any coach is to win all possible matches, Harrington admits that the tournament structure – where all eight participants make the quarterfinals – gives him the flexibility to give players more minutes than they would have in a typical NWSL campaign. For a team that is in transition and has a lot of new, exciting pieces on its roster – this is an exciting opportunity.
“I think it’s called the Challenge Cup for a reason,” Harrington said. “Right now, for me, it’s about development and winning. In a perfect world, we could do both of those. Hopefully, at least we tick one of those boxes at either end.”
While Harrington is a coach that has taken an unconventional path to be met with his dream job, the moment and the opportunity to start his new project is not lost on him. With an ethos forged in clubs and countries big and small, Harrington is ready to succeed.
“To get this opportunity in Utah, which is one of the biggest clubs in women’s soccer is an amazing opportunity,” Harrington said. “I’m working every day as hard as I can to stay here as long as possible and make sure we’re successful. Hopefully, whatever my time is in charge here, I can leave a mark that lasts a long time, imprint, and establish a culture and identity and principles that make sure Utah Royals FC are successful for a very long time.”